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The Power of 450 MBA Students Thinking Like Designers

Can 450 MBA students get a taste of design thinking and do something meaningful in less than a week? The answer it turns out is yes

By  Ifeatu Nnaobi

Wed Mar 13 2013

This is a guest post written by IE Business School professor C. Todd Lombardo
Last week I had the opportunity to be the architect of IE Business School's Change in Action module—and what a challenge it was! This was a“real live” case. There were no Harvard “B” handout sheets, no case notes for professors, and no pre-planned solutions, as with many business school teaching cases.
Since this case did not have a solution, all 450 IE International MBA students, professors, and the facilitators were going to co-create one in only a few days.
Chaos—just as in life
Can 450 MBA students get a taste of design thinking and do something meaningful in less than a week? The answer it turns out is yes; they absolutely can. Before we even started the week’s activities, there was plenty of work to do that began months in advance. The introductory case had to be written and the week’s logistics and activities had to be planned.
This was IE Business School's third year to include design thinking in this module, and while I've been consulted in past iterations, this time I had the responsibility for the academic content direction.
No pressure
I considered what I know about design thinking and also searched the available material on design thinking. We kicked off the week with a talk by the case protagonist, Sarah Adeel, founder of LettuceBee Kids, a social enterprise for street-children of Pakistan. This was followed by a talk by Saad Khan, the CEO of Gillette Pakistan, who is faced with developing a customer base in this developing nation. Then, in my talk, I introduced design thinking by asking, “Can you point to something in this room that's not designed?” Not many hands went up.
Later that day we gave the students a full-cycle design experience using Stanford d.school's wallet exercise. Then, the next day, we held a four-hour workshop (in two sessions, morning and afternoon) with facilitators, including a number of designers from local agencies, professors of entrepreneurship, and myself, an adjunct professor who does not really fit in any of the classic business school departments such as strategy, human resources or entrepreneurship.
During the workshop, each group of around six students was to “land” the challenge, meaning that they took the information, videos, and talks they had available to them, reframed the situation, and arrived at a more focused and actionable challenge.
I worked with four groups, two at a time. It was energizing, yet absolutely exhausting. My spend-out philosophy was in action. Each group had a different energy and a different vibe, as expected.
One afternoon group was about to check out and throw their hands up. So, I had each group share their reframed point-of-view with the other and obtain feedback. At first, this group had a weak statement: “[person] has the need to [need] because of [insight].” However, it took the feedback to heart and worked and re-worked the statement. Ten minutes later, the group members had nailed it and I affirmed their success. Their energy rebounded, and they went from being a seemingly uninterested team to being a group who thought they could make something meaningful and impactful. It was amazing to watch this change over the course of about 20 minutes. This group went on to be selected as the winning team of their section.
After Tuesday's workshop the students were given another day to continue to create, solicit feedback, and evolve their ideas. I held office hours on Wednesday and had a line of groups with amazing ideas queuing to see me. I gave each team specific advice, all of which boiled down to three points:
(1) Build a prototype, something tangible that people can interact with.
(2) Get feedback from someone similar to your targeted audience, and more specifically, from someone outside the MBA program.
(3) Go beyond PowerPoint (or Prezi, or Keynote, or SlideRocket, etc.) for your presentation.
The overall winning team created a combination of Bank of America’s Keep the Change program and the coffee-loyalty punch card. (You know, “Buy nine coffees and get your tenth free.”) It was incredible. They showed up with mockup LettuceBeeKids credit cards, bank statements, and loyalty cards. They spoke to banks in the Middle East as well as Pakistani citizens to get a sense of whether their solutions would make sense. Their presentation was partly in PowerPoint and included a role-play that simply and clearly showed how the loyalty card and keep-the-change systems would work.
All in less than four days
Easy? No. All 450 students experienced the highs and lows of design and design thinking, from the frustration and the confusion to the delight and elation.
While there may be other MBA programs that teach design thinking, this module gave the students a real case with real tools and real outcomes that they can apply to the rest of their careers.
The real winners of the week? The LettuceBee Kids organization. Sarah went home with over 40 different ideas to implement in her organization, and a few of them had actionable next steps.
IEBusinessSchool.png C. Todd Lombardo
Read more stories about students, alumni and programmes at IE Business School, Spain